Friday, July 29, 2005

What Do You Expect From A Flying Thermos?

Ok, more crap fell off of Discovery's main fuel tank. Fortunately it doesn't seem to have made a difference, except to future missions. But it is indicative of the primary problem with the system...the tank is essentially a giant styrofoam thermos designed to keep the liquid oxygen and hydrogen that are the shuttles fuel cold enough to remain liquid. (-312 degrees F). The foam on the outside not only helps insulate the contents, but it prevents the formation of potentially dangerous ice as a result of the humid Florida air. Of course we have a classic catch-22 here. Lose the foam and you have ice that can fall off during launch and damage the orbiter. Keep the foam, and you have foam that can fall off during launch and damage the orbiter. What to do...what to do?

Fortunately there are solutions, but they are somewhat painful. Retire the shuttles and build something new. That has been in the works for some time now, but the work has been going very, very slowly. There were numerous, well publicized failures in the last decade or so. The X-33, X-34, and Delta Clipper projects were all terminated in the early 2000's with very little progress made. These were all SSO(single stage to orbit) vehicles, looking to further the near-total reusability paradigm that was the genesis of the STS program.(Space Transport System is the shuttle's real name) Unfortunately that ideology is exactly why the shuttle never worked as well as it was planned.

Orginally the shuttle program was to see several launches per month, often with more than one vehicle in orbit at once. Alas, that never happened. The reality is that space flight is a very dangerous proposition, and a very expensive one. Plus the abuse a vehicle recieves during launch and re-entry is staggering. The shuttle is a very, very complex machine that uses technology that was state-of-the-art in the '70s. Rather than being easier to launch, recover, and refit than Apollo capsules it has proven to be just the opposite. It costs somewhere in the vicinity of $30 million per ton of cargo, compared with $3-5 million for more traditional boosters, and takes months of refit time to make flight-ready again. And she is only good for low Earth orbit (LEO). The shuttle was never designed to get to the Moon. Once the ISS is complete, NASA plans to retire the program, but a true successor has yet to surface.

There are two contenders in the race to build the next manned transport system. Not surprisingly they are Lockheed Martin, and Boeing. I'm rather partial to Lockheed Martin, since they make the C-130 Hercules, which is the aircraft I worked on in the Air Force, and they are also the only ones showing what they are working on. This URL is to their website detailing the CEV(Crew Exploration Vehicle) system. It seems to be a hybrid of shuttle technology, and more traditional multi-stage rocketry. The CEV is launched atop a booster like an Apollo capsule, so all of the propulsion and fuel components are below the spacecraft. Crap can fall off forever and never endanger the crew. Once in LEO the boosters fall away and the CEV links up with whatever mission specific modules have been lifted previously into orbit by cheaper boosters. These can range from simple scientific and repair missions, to boosters and habitation modules designed for lunar or martian sojourns. While the CEV looks like a glider, it returns to Earth using parachutes, and most likely lands in the ocean. I like this system a lot. It maintains a level of reuse, without making the system so complex that it is as unwieldy as the shuttle. Boeing is playing their cards close to the vest, saying only that their system is also more akin to Apollo. We'll see what happens, since the shuttle fleet is scheduled to be decomissioned in 2010.

I have always loved the shuttle program, and watching a launch in person is one of the greatest thrills I have ever experienced, but as with many relationships the time has come to say goodbye. Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, Endeavour, and of course Enterprise have served their country, and planet well and safely (2 losses out of 114 launches is pretty damn good). They have carved their names indellibly on the atmosphere of this globe, but it's time to let them go, and move ahead.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Look Who Came To Dinner

Surprise Visitor Posted by Picasa

Who knew that the Sith owned a time share in St. Pete?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Space, the final frontier...

Discovery seems to have the dubious honor of being the first shuttle launched after a major disaster. She was the first one to fly after Challenger, and now she has done her phoenix impression post Columbia. I tried to watch the launch from the roof of my theatre today, but it was too cloudy to see.

Now those of you who know me know that I love everything about space exploration. I remember watching the Apollo missions; my 5 year old brain barely comprehending what was happening, but understanding it was something important. I remember Skylab going up, and coming down. I saved the newspaper from the very first Shuttle launch (Columbia's first mission), and I remember exactly what I was doing when the Challenger blew. I grew up watching Star Trek, Lost In Space, The Thunderbirds, and just about any other show that dealt with space, and if it weren't for a terrible aptitude for math, I would probably have gone into aviation with the hopes of becoming an astronaut. So this may seem strange coming from me, but I think it's time for NASA to shut down.

Now before you get all hufffy, hear me out. The fact that it took two and a half years to get back to the launch pad after Columbia is indicative of the inertia experienced by any government project. It used to be that governments were the only ones with the financial wherewithal to fund a space program, but every year Congress whittles a little more away from NASA's budget, and the pundits constantly bicker about whether we should be spending tax dollars to send man into space. It's so dangerous, they'll argue, so why not send robots. And we do send a lot of robots. But pushing the frontiers of human knowledge back has always been a risky venture, and often the greatest strides come from commercial interest. Space exploration will never boom unless and until it becomes profitable to do so. That's why I imagine that in the future Neil Armstrong's name will stand along with Burt Rutan, and Richard Branson in the annals of space history. Rutan designed and flew Spaceship One, the first private vehicle to fly safely to the edge of space and back twice in two months. He has teamed with eccentric billionaire Branson to lay the groundwork for space tourism...and that's where the real future of space flight lies. People will pay dearly for something that entertains them, even if they will decry it as frivolous the whole time. Imagine how much money the Disney company makes with its 11 theme parks, and movie and television studios. Now imagine if they put those resources toward say creating Disney World: Sea of Tranquility. If Branson succeeds with his Virgin: Galactic venture there will be a boom in space tourism companies which might even get the prices down to where ordinary schmucks like me could afford a once-in-a-lifetime trip to orbit in my lifetime. Right now it can cost ten's of thousands of dollars per pound of payload to get into orbit, but with numerous designs for reusable SSO (single stage to orbit) spacecraft being proposed, and a possible attempt at a space elevator sometime this century, space travel could get very crowded. I'm excited to be alive at this point in history, but I think that unless NASA does a radical paradigm shift soon, they and their rapidly aging fleet of orbiters will be left in the cosmic dust.

But all that aside, congratulations to Discovery and her crew. Godspeed.


Monday, July 25, 2005

Ok, so it's not PhotoShop, but it's the best I could do with the software I have. :-) Posted by Picasa

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Photo Experiment #1

Our Triumphant Return to Florida Posted by Picasa

Hiya, Folks!
Well, as you can see we've been doing some remodeling here at The Corner. I'm also starting to play with posting pictures and such, although this one was supposed to go into my profile, but what the hey, HTML is a strange creature, and I'm still a novice at it's intricacies. Anyhoo, the above photo was taken at the first Florida rest stop on I-10. I know, not very exciting, but give me some time and I'm sure I'll have lots of Godzilla vs. an Imperial Star Destroyer pics up soon. ;-)

Love and kisses,

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Put The Cell-Phone Down, Mr. President

Ok, I'm mad again. Last night, in an attempt to lighten my mood after hearing of the demise of James Doohan, my wife and I went to see Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. It was cute, and Johnny Depp is amazing, and I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I do, however, have one small, tiny, itsy-bitsy little complaint:


I cannot imagine how we survived going for up to two whole hours without being reachable in the past. One nymphette next to me had her cell go off, and at first I was heartened to hear her embarrased statement 'I thought I had turned it off.' But then she ANSWERED the damn thing! Another guy held a walkie-talkie conversation, complete with the very loud beep every time he spoke. Unless you are an expectant father, in which case you should be at the hospital and not in the movie theater, or a doctor on call, the world will continue to turn without you for a couple of hours. And if your over-inflated sense of self worth is that fragile that you must have others confirm your existence every ten minutes or so, sit in the back row and text message your heart out. Or better yet, just stay the fuck home!

Love and kisses,

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Final Beam-out

In October of 1991 I was at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. I was on a special assignment with Air Force Entertainment working with volunteers from all over the country. Every morning we gathered in the parking lot of the dorms in which we were staying to catch the shuttle to our work place. The 24th of that month seemed no different to me, until one of my colleagues arrived with USA Today in hand and blurted out with a laugh, "Hey, Gene Roddenberry croaked!" I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I had been unaware that Gene had been ill for quite some time, besides our heroes are supposed to be immortal, right? Some of the others, who knew how big a fan I was took the guy aside and asked him to let it go, and to his credit he did. Eventually I began to wonder how I could mourn so deeply someone I had never even met. I never answered that question, and today I am forced to ask it again.

James Doohan died today. He was 86, and suffering from Alzheimer's, so it actually is a blessing, but I am sad nonetheless. I won't rehash what Star Trek means to me, but I will point out that Doohan was the spine of the show. Without Scotty, the Enterprise would not have been half the ship she was.

Everyone, even people who never watched the show, knows what 'Scotty, beam me up' means. But what do we know about the man behind the character. He was Canadian, not Scottish. He was wounded during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and was missing a finger on his right hand. He's most famous for playing Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott on the original Star Trek, but he was also the voice of Sargon, the M-5 Computer, and Trelane's Father. He not only played himself and Lt. Arex on the short lived animated Star Trek series, but also used his voice talents to bring so many other characters to life on that show that I could not list them all. How many of you remember him as Commander Canarvin on the truly lame Saturday morning show Jason of Star Command? He also did guest appearances on Duckman, Macgyver, Magnum P.I., Fantasy Island, and appeared twice on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. He was a staple of television in the 60's, rivaled only by DeForest Kelly on number of westerns and other dramatic appearances.

I never met the man, but a few of my friends have. He was reportedly a friendly, patient man who never refused an autograph. He was also one of the most outspoken Shatner bashers, which makes his on-screen affection for Capt. Kirk that much more impressive. And while there were some serious plot problems, his appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the highest high points of that series.

Today I am sad. There will, undoubtedly, be thousands if not millions of blogs eulogizing Mr. Doohan, and I earnestly hope that his family see some of them and know that he made a difference in the lives of so many. I am sure that despite our tendencies to deify our heroes, James Doohan was just a man doing a job, but he did that job with skill, grace, and excellence, and I am glad to have benefited from his generosity of spirit.

I will end this with an image I have that makes me smile. I am picturing Gene Roddenberry, DeForest Kelly, Mark Leonard, Matt Jeffries and James Doohan sitting in a heavenly casino, playing poker, and laughing together as the waitress, in a classic Bill Theiss creation, brings them each a bottle of Saurian Brandy, and a tribble.

Good bye, Scotty, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Symbols and Such


I have been having a bit of trouble coming up with something to blog about since I had a pretty nice weekend, and I'm not particularly angry about anything right now. We went to visit my sister, my wife and I attended a wonderful SCA(medieval recreationist stuff) event, I finally heard from my two favorite students, and we actually made some progress on the apartment. Yesterday, though, I saw something that got me thinking. (yes, I know. that can be dangerous) I saw a bumper sticker on a huge pick-up truck that had two Confederate flags, and between them read 'find out the truth before you judge'(or words to that effect). That made me pause. I do try to question my own beliefs from time to time, or when presented with an unexpected viewpoint I will attempt to see things from that angle, so I started wondering if perhaps I needed more information about the realities of what the Confederate flag represents. I planned to get on-line and do some research when something occurred to me. Symbolism is not rooted in rationality or research. It lives deep in the mind, in that same place where there are monsters under the bed, and angels over our pillows.

Symbols are the shorthand for our visceral reactions. I would imagine that the parts of our brains that respond to symbols are among the oldest; carrying instincts from pre-language humanity, when a picture (or eviscerated buffalo carcass) was literally worth a thousand words. It doesn't matter that there were many black people who fought for the South in the civil war, all that matters is that today the rebel 'stars and bars' stirs instinctive anger in some, instinctive patriotism in others. The true history of the symbol, while surely important, is rendered irrelevant by our emotions. And if you feel that I am in error about this, and I certainly welcome comments, let me put forth another example. The swastika has been around for centuries. It was used in countless forms by cultures as diverse as the Navaho, Hindu, and Bhuddists. But a little over 60 years or so ago a charismatic madman took this ancient symbol and forever tarnished it with blood. Perhaps, in time, Hitler will become a minor footnote in human history, but for now the swastika, with all of its positive cultural ancestry, is instantly recognized as representing hatred, and horror, and fear.

So what's my point? To be honest I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps I want to encourage people to question their deepest beliefs. Maybe I want people to be more understanding when others disagree vehemently about those beliefs. Maybe I'm just killing time before going to work. We just don't know. ;-)

Peace out.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Help for the Creationists

Hi folks. It's public service time here at the Corner. Recently conservative Christians have been trying to do their civic duty to make sure that high school text books reflect a fair and balanced view of society, and to that end they are insisting that evolution, which is only a theory, be placed next to creationism to allow students a broader picture of the universe. To that end I have done some research to help them to further that goal by supplying some creation stories from some other religions.

The Hopi indians believe that Tawa (the sun god) and Spider Woman (the Earth goddess) divided themselves to create the other gods, then sang a magical song to create the Earth. Then they made clay figures of animals and people, and worked mighty magic to give them life. Students could try building their own animals and/or people out of Play-Doh(tm) and then try to sing them to life.

According to the Huron indians, a divine woman fell from a tear in the sky. Two loons, recognizing her divinity, caught her and called for help, for there was only water below. Snapping Turtle commanded all animals to dive deep and bring up some Earth. Many tried, but only Toad succeeded, and the woman took the Earth and packed it around Turtle's shell, where then grew the Earth, which still resides on Turtle's back. Students could be assigned to study sattelite imagery to try and locate Turtle's mouth, and devise lettuce launch strategies, since he must be hungry by now.

A primary Hindu creation Veda tells us that Purusha- the being beyond all beings- selflessly created the universe out of himself. His body is the castes of India; his mind the moon, his eye is the sun. The Sorm god Indra, and the fire god Agni came from his mouth, as does the wind. His head is Heaven, and his feet are the Earth. His navel is the atmosphere. Have your students plot out a plan to create a giant Tic-Tac and toss it down the holy throat for as much as to make the wind minty fresh.

There are far more stories out there, but this should get them started. Now I'm off to show how that pesky atomic theory, being just a theory, is misleading. Everyone knows that lightning is really Thor playing Lawn Darts with Loki.

Saturday, July 09, 2005


Why do they hate us? That always seems to be the question when the Muslim extremists strike. Is it because even our poorest people can still get a car and 2000db stereo system? Is it because we are considered to be arrogant, rude, lazy, morally deficient rubes who treat this planet like our own personal playground/cess pool? Is it because our presidents tend to be loud-mouthed frat boys who posture and preen all the while being told what to say from just off stage? Is it because we are (currently) the only superpower so they must strike us at our few vulnerable spots; namely civillians? Did they bomb London for the same reason that mobsters in movies capture Mel Gibson's children: 'we won't hurt you, but we will hurt your family', since the British, with the exception of that little incident in the late 1700's, have always been part of our extended family? And the biggest question, in my mind anyway, is what do they hope to accomplish? I think I might have an idea on that one.

These people aren't terrorists. They're revengists. They can't all be idiots, and only an idiot would believe that car bombs and explosives belts will change governments. Terrorism has never succeeded, and never will, since it's primary effect is to further entrench those being attacked. I don't believe that the 'terrorists' hope to change anything. They are just angry, disaffected, ignorant zealots who have been convinced that the only way to heaven is to take out a handful of infidels in a blaze of C-4. The bombers are victims as much as the casualties. The real villians, as increasingly seems to be the case in many negative situations[such as at a certain Louisiana school] are the relatively few 'holy' men who are spewing this billious rhetoric, and convincing these poor schmucks to give themselves a nitro enema and two-step into a restaurant to get a take-out order for Allah. Our military forces can kill all the insurgents they want, but until the heads of the hydra are cut off this battle will continue ad infinitum. I'm sure the real military commanders know that, but I'm not so sure that the civillian officials over them get it. W seems honestly perplexed that the American people are losing faith in the war. I'm sure he gets a daily body count, and sees that there are more turbans than kevlar helmets on the tally sheet, and thinks, "Yippee Kai Yai Yay, Mother-F**ers!" And one of the most evil (in my opinion, of course) men in the world today, Dick Cheney, actually had the audacity to suggest that the insurgency in winding down. I won't dwell on that, since Gary Trudeau and Jon Stewart have already done so with much greater finesse than I could, but it seems that the people who led us into this war truly believe that we are winning.

I don't have a solution to suggest, but I do have a plea to Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and most especially to George W. Bush. Let the people who know how to fight a war do their jobs; give them all the support they require to get it done and get us out of there, but let them make the decisions. You three have proven over the last two years that you couldn't strategize your way out of a game of capture the flag, let alone deal with a situation as complex as Iraq. And please, please realize that just because you say something on camera, or have someone put it on a banner on an aircraft carrier, that doesn't make it true.

Peace out,

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Aliens, Atrocities, and Comets

Greetings, Gentle Readers,

My wife and I have just returned from a very relaxing weekend back in the old stomping grounds, and I would like to share some musings with you.

Firstly, we saw The War of the Worlds last night, and despite my lack of understanding of what is so great about Tom Cruise(although he at least played a character in this film), it was a really good movie. While the eggs Spielberg lays aren't always golden, (three words: The Lost World :-p ) this one hit the mark beautifully. I am a big fan of both the H.G. Wells novel, and the 1953 movie, and this version is a worthy addition. He tweaked, and updated the story a little bit, but the basic premise; aliens have come to wipe the Earth clean and set up housekeeping is terrifyingly presented in all its CGI glory. My recommendation is to see it at a good theatre, with state-of-the-art sound. The audio aspect of the tripods was never really captured in the first movie, but if you thought the T-Rex roar from Jurassic Park was bone-rattling, you ain't heard nothing yet. I don't think the academy will be all over this one, but I'm predicting at least a nomination for sound effects and sound editing. At first the addition of Dakota Fanning seemed a needless pandering to demographics, but I have to go back to Carrie Henn as "Newt" in Aliens to find as good a performance by a young girl in such a film. I only hope that Dakota has a good therapist.

Secondly, the impending G8 summit. I heard a bit of a report on the attempt to get most, if not all of Africa's debts forgiven. The reasoning was that most of the debts were incurred by corrupt governments who used foreign aid to further their own fortunes rather than help their people. Now, I am by no means an economist, and I truly feel for the victims of this political avarice, but two things come to mind. 1. If the debt of every nation on the African continent were erased in one fell swoop, what would that do to the economies of the nations owed? 2. At what point is the population of a country responsible for the misdeed of its leaders?

I don't know the answer to the first question, and I earnestly invite commentary. On the second point, however, I have a strong opinion, and one that is fitting given the date. 239 years ago a group of men decided that the ruling body for their country was no longer suiting their needs, so they made a decision, wrote a declaration, and fought back. Now I'm not pretending it was easy, or that the revolutionaries worked alone; the American Revoulution could be viewed as the real first world war (yes, I know that most of the other countries helping us were working as mercenaries or consultants, but they were involved.) Nor am I ignoring how bloody the war got. What I am saying is that there comes a time when a nation must take responsibility for its leaders. I know that modern despots have technological ways to stay in power, but they can also be overthrown, like Causcescu. Most peoples cower and snivel and wait for the UN to unleash the Sword of American Justice upon their unjust and evil rulers. Unfortunately we've now tried that a couple of times, and we have learned what many cops have. When you step into a domestic disturbance, people who ignored the initial fight get instantly polarized against the invading bringer of order, and things get very messy, very quickly, and it isn't long before someone gets a tazer to the sack.

I used this argument before we invaded Iraq, and I stand by it. If a nation asks for our help, or more specifically the UN's help (although it sort of ends up being mostly us anyway) then by all means let us join the fight against tyrrany. But, as in Iraq, if the people are oppressed, but complacent, why does it become our job to fight their war? And to bring this full circle, why do we only pick places to 'liberate' in the Middle East? There are regimes in Africa that make Saddam's atrocities seem like schoolyard bullying, but we aren't flattening Rwanda or Angola in the name of freedom. When the Hutu were trying to carve the Tutsi tribe off the face of the Earth in 1994 there was lots of news coverage, but no push to invade and 'liberate' the Tutsis, and the world was begging us to do something. {note that this is a blanket criticism of our government in general. Clinton was pres. during the Rwandan genocide.} I know that the current regime...excuse me...administration gets all huffy when they hear the phrase 'no blood for oil', but it becomes increasingly clear that the US government is only interested in conflicts where there is something to gain. Now listen closesly here: I don't have a problem with that. If Bush had said that we were going into Iraq to liberate the natural resources from a madman who's policies are keeping them from the rest of the world I'd have been stunned, but I'd have been unable to argue. To couch the reasons behind bogus philanthropy is hypocrisy at its highest, and an insult to all who have died unjustly in countries with no valuable resources.

My final point is a hat's off to NASA. The Deep Impact probe performed perfectly. Yesterday an 800 lb. probe smashed into comet Tempel 1 sending out a spectacular plume of gas and debris. The photos are amazing:

It is our first close encounter with a comet, and will hopefully answer some long-held questions about the origins of the Solar system.

Ok, folks. I've given you a lot to think about. Do your own work, no cheating. Put down your pencils and raise your hand when you are done. ;-)